Should we buy a fixer-upper?


You may not be able to afford a ready-made version of the house you want right now, but adding the components over time can get you there eventually.

Dear David,

We’ve been looking for a home for a long time and have made a number of unsuccessful offers. We are starting to realize that the type of home we want may not be in the cards. Would it make sense to consider a fixer-upper? – READY TO TRY PLAN B

DEAR READY: You may not be able to afford a ready-made version of the house you want right now, but adding the components over time can get you there. 

I recently sold a home that was built, owned, and lovingly cared for by the same couple for 60 years. Fundamental aspects of the house had been updated over time – the furnace, AC and roof, for example – but most components were original, and holding up quite well. Many buyers would have turned up their noses at the 1960s-era kitchen and bathrooms, vintage décor, and wood paneling in the basement. But after six decades, these elements were in decent shape and can almost certainly last another five years as the new owner saves to replace them.

When the type of home you envision feels just out of reach, you can re-align your expectations by separating “wants” from “needs”. It may make sense to look at a smaller home with updates, or find something that works in terms of size and location, but needs a refresh.

In a tough market like this one, the ideal candidate may have numerous aspects that are past their cosmetic prime, but still in good working order. I’m not suggesting a “bring your toolbox” type listing that is obviously run down, but rather something with a 20, 30 or 40-year-old kitchen that will continue to function until you can afford to change it.

A house with possibilities may not be as impressive out of the gate, but a buyer’s ability to see it for what it can be is the essence of gentrification. If a property has great bones (like adequate square footage and a mature backyard), it will be easy enough to add granite countertops down the road. And as you narrow down the ideas on your Pinterest vision board, the value of your investment on growing.

Ninety-five percent of my clients want homes that are beautiful, which is understandable. When that’s not a reasonable goal, it makes sense to approach your search from the standpoint of creator, rather than consumer. In a restaurant, a chef takes the same six dollars’ worth of ingredients you have at home and turns them into a menu item worth $19.95. For a potential home buyer, the property’s strong bones are their raw materials; time and effort are the culinary magic.

PRO TIP: If you’re downsizing your expectations, a certain amount of compromise is inevitable. I recommend letting go of what can be replaced and holding tight to what can’t. An upgraded kitchen with swanky Italian tile can be a great future goal, if setting it aside (for now) frees you up to snag a big backyard and trees as old as your parents. #AskDavid #Advice